The House narrowly approved a Republican-crafted energy bill Friday aimed at encouraging construction of new refineries, although opponents said it would do nothing to ease energy prices while handing unneeded benefits to a profit-rich oil industry.
Supporters of the measure said that hurricanes Katrina and Rita made clear that the country needs more refineries, including new ones outside of the Gulf region. Critics argued it would allow the oil industry to avoid environmental regulations that would lead to dirtier air.
The bill passed 212-210. Its prospects in the Senate were uncertain.
The vote, which was supposed to be taken in five minutes, lasted more than 40 minutes as GOP leaders searched for the last two votes they needed to get the bill approved. They buttonholed lawmakers for last-minute lobbying as Democrats complained loudly that the vote should be closed. Finally two GOP lawmakers switched from “no” to “yes,” giving the bill’s supporters the margin of victory.
No Democrats voted for the legislation.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said the bill streamlines the maze of permitting requirements for expanding or building refineries and directs the president to single out federal land where a refinery may be built. The changes could lead to construction of a new U.S. refinery within a year, he predicted.
But opponents said the legislation fails to address the rising cost of natural gas — which will cause heating costs to soar this winter — or deal with high prices motorists are paying at the pump. Instead, they argued, it will allow the oil industry to avoid environmental rules and force states and communities to accept refineries they don’t want.
“Using Hurricane Katrina as their excuses the Republicans are again pushing their special interest agenda,” said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, including “all the special favors to the industry that were too extreme” for Congress last summer when it passed energy legislation.
But Barton said the need for more refineries was made obvious by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The hurricanes shut down a dozen refineries and disrupted a fifth of the country’s gasoline supplies.